Arago: Exhibits

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Free Franking - A Fluid History

George Washington free frank cover

President George Washington sent this letter to Mrs. A. L. Dubarry, Philadelphia, using his free frank privilege. Washington chose never to sign his name to a free franked envelope; he signed with his office.

INTRODUCTION

If an individual may send mail through the regular mail stream without paying postage, he or she enjoys the “free frank” privilege, a benefit first enjoyed in England during the eighteenth century by members of Parliament, the Council, and persons acting in a public capacity. The sender need only add his signature to the envelope. In the United States, the first Continental Congress (1774) extended the same privilege to members of Congress and the secretary of Congress while in office, to and from the commander in chief of the armies of the United States, commanders of a separate army, and to and from the heads of the Departments of Finance, of War, and of Foreign Affairs. Congress also allowed a newspaper publishers to free frank one copy of their paper for posting to another newspaper anywhere in the United States. A charge applied for newspapers sent over 300 miles.

The three temporary Post Office Acts Congress passed between 1789 and 1792 provided for free franking for certain government offices and officials.

An image of The Post Office Act of 1790, signed by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, appears on the preceding page of the exhibit.

The Postal Act of 1789, which temporarily established the United States Postal System and created the postmaster general position, continued the free franking privilege to and from members of Congress and government officials and required that a signature be personally applied to the envelope. The Postal Act of 1792 permanently established the US Post Office.

As the volume of mail grew during the early nineteenth century, complaints surfaced about the requirement to sign each free-frank envelope, and so after the Civil War, Congress sanctioned automated printing of signatures.

Abuse of the free franking benefit abounded, and, in time, a national scandal raged. Newspapers reported, for instance, that members of Congress “routinely franked laundry home and gave their signatures to family and friends for personal use.” One senator, reports announced, attached a frank to his horse’s bridle to send it back to Pittsburg. In response, on January 31, 1873, Congress passed legislation abolishing the free frank, effective July 1, 1873. “Official” stamps replaced the free frank for the executive and judicial branches until 1877, when penalty envelopes replaced the Official stamp. Two years later, Congress reauthorized limited free franking for members of Congress. It restored full rights for congressional representatives by 1891. The right did not extend to their constituents, however.

Recognizing the necessity that other governmental bodies have ready access to the postal system, Congress passed the Act of March 3, 1877, authorizing free franking of official mail bearing the words “Official Business,” the department name, and a line stating the penalty for misuse, thus the origin of the term “Penalty Mail.” In 1910, Congress reintroduced Official stamps for use by the Postage Savings Program, and they remained in use until 1914. In 1983, Congress once again authorized Official stamps and stamped envelopes for use as a component of the “Penalty Mail Stamp System” that also includes official metered mail.

Congress has generally reserved free franking privileges for the Legislature. However, it has authorized exceptions from time-to-time. Examples of some of these exceptions appear on covers in this collection.

The objects shown in this collection are selected highlights from the National Postal Museum Collection that demonstrate the historical significance and range free frank usage.